A friend of mine who is sort of new to knitting told me she was afraid to make socks because double pointed needles and pattern directions seemed too much to handle for her. Reflecting on the time I made my first pair of socks I came to understand why. It is not only the use of double pointed needles that is intimidating. Written sock patterns are disorienting for beginners. I remember reading through my first sock pattern rated as “easy” and having a very difficult time picturing in my brain how the heck all of it worked. Gusset what? What is that? Heel turn? Huh? Knitting my first sock was like a leap of faith. I trusted in the directions. The cool thing was that as I progressed through the sock directions and my work I learned as I went.
The “learn as you go” method is not for everyone. For people who are not as crazy as I am and who justifiably read a sock pattern and set it aside because it just doesn’t make any sense: I have decided to make this step-by-step visual guide. I came up with the idea as I was finishing the first of a pair of socks and my friend expressed her uneasiness about sock making. When I started the second sock I got out my iPhone and photographed what I believe are the major steps in sock knitting: casting on, knitting around the double pointed needles to form the calf hugging tube, making the heel flap, turning the heel with short row shaping, creating the gusset, decreasing the gusset, and shaping the toe. Socks aren’t always knitted this way but it is a common method that many patterns follow.
It just so happens that when I came up with this idea for a visual guide to sock knitting I was in the middle of knitting a pair of socks from an easy pattern that new sock knitters can handle. If you wish feel free to follow the same pattern. It is Kate Atherley’s “Basic Ribbed Socks” and it is available for free on Ravelry. It is my favorite basic sock pattern. The bonus is that there is no need to know how to graft. Beginning sock knitters can just finish the toe by pulling the yarn end through the remaining stitches.
Be aware that using double pointed needles is not the only method used for knitting socks. You can use two circular needles, the magic loop method, or even two straight needles. Believe it or not, though, the double pointed needles method is pretty simple. I suspect that people who swear by the other methods started making their socks on double pointed needles and for that reason they can pick up the other methods quickly and simply. Don’t believe my suspicion, though, take it with a grain of salt. I can’t unlearn the double pointed needles method so I am no authority. If you wish to skip learning on double pointed needles please do so! Just move on to the aforementioned links and ignore the rest of this guide.
OK. Perhaps you stayed with me. Let’s learn! But first, let’s go over what I assume you already know:
- Cast on
- Knit and purl
- K2tog (knit 2 together)
- SSK (slip slip knit)
- Pick up and knit (or pick up stitches)
- Slip purl wise
- Bind off
- Check gauge (VERY IMPORTANT) If you read somewhere that you need to block to check your gauge do not bother! Blocking is very important for designers and not critical for the pattern consumer. You can measure your gauge without blocking. Please, though, please please bind off before measuring your gauge.
Materials you need:
- A sock pattern that calls for sock yarn or fingering weight yarn.
- Sock yarn or fingering weight yarn (for the pattern I’m knitting you need 350-400 yards) + 1 practice ball
- 1 ball of practice yarn (see the line above!) It needs to be the same exact brand, fiber content, and weight you’ll be using to make the socks so you achieve the correct gauge
- Double pointed needles in sizes US 0 to 3 (2mm to 3.25mm)
- Stitch marker
- Stitch holder
- Crochet hook (to fix mistakes)
- Tape measure (you need to measure a lot!)
Basic Sock Construction
The parts of a sock numbered in the sequence they are knitted
1. Cuff: This is where we start when we knit socks from the top down. The cuff typically has some kind of ribbing (k1p1, k2p2, etc.) You’ll notice that on this sock there really isn’t a cuff because the entire leg portion is ribbed (in k3p1 ribbing).
2. Leg: The “leg” is the portion that covers the calf. Notice that when you knit a sock with this method you knit down from the calf to the foot.
3. Heel flap: The heel flap is knitted flat as a protrusion from the calf hugging tube and is the portion of the sock that will cover the back of the heel of the foot. Typically you begin flat knitting a limited number of stitches at the beginning of the round, turn, and work your way back ignoring the rest of the stitches in the round. The other stitches from the tube you made are placed on a stitch holder. They will be worked later.
4. Heel turn: This is also knit flat and is just a continuation of the heel flap. Some fancy shaping, using decreases, is used to create a comfy pocket for the bottom of the heel of the foot.
5. Gusset (created with the instep): You create the gusset after you finish the heel turn by picking up stitches along the edge of the heel that you created. Typically this is what you do: knit across the heel, pick up stitches along the edge of the heel, continue knitting the stitches that were placed on a holder, and finally pick up stitches along the other edge of the heel.
5. Instep (created at the same time as the gusset): When you pick up the gusset you simultaneously reincorporate the stitches that were held aside to create the heel flap and heel turn to reestablish the round that was interrupted. Those stitches you ignore during the heel shaping process now become the instep which covers the top of the foot. This portion of the foot section of the sock typically follows the same stitch pattern used to create the leg. The other side of the tube you are knitting which is begun with the stitches picked up to form the gusset covers the bottom of the foot.
6. Sole or “foot”: Many patterns refer to this side of the tube as the “foot” but in reality it is a sole because it usually covers the bottom of the foot. This part of the pattern is usually worked in stockinette stitch whereas the instep usually follows (and continues) the stitch pattern used for the leg.
7. Toe: After you knit round and round (and make some significant decreases to the gusset) for a while you shape the toe by decreasing some more. The toe, of course, covers the toes.
Does this make sense yet? Don’t worry if it doesn’t. As you progress through the knitting process refer to the above diagram and explanation and at some point the light bulb will turn on. Until then, let’s make a sock!
Step 1: Practice using double pointed needles and get the correct gauge. (If you can knit on double pointed needles skip the practicing and figure out your gauge.)
Read the instructions for the sock pattern you would like to make and figure out what gauge you need. If you’re following the same pattern as me, Kate Atherley’s “Basic Ribbed Socks,” the gauge to aim for is in her pattern.
If you do not yet know how to knit using double pointed needles have a look at this tutorial (includes video).
Now, cast on some stitches using your practice ball of yarn and knit round and round. You’re killing two birds with one stone here. You’re getting the feel of the double pointed needles and figuring out what size needles you need to achieve the gauge that is indicated in the sock pattern you’ve chosen. If you discover that your gauge isn’t right try again making another tube with different sized needles. (I know, it’s annoying, but when you get more experienced and start using your favorite yarns for socks you won’t need to do this as much).
Step 2: Cast on your first sock!
As you learned from the double pointed needles tutorial it is best to cast all your stitches onto one needle and then spread them out evenly among three needles. The cast on method you choose is up to you but the best one to use for the “Basic Ribbed Socks” I’m knitting is the long tail cast on. It’s stretchy but not messy (I hate the e cast on). I can’t use the tubular cast on because I start with k3p1 ribbing. So, yeah, I’ll just cast on with the long tail method.
When you get all your stitches onto your needle it’s time to divide them among three needles. The best way to do this is to slip the stitches purl wise onto a new needle. So, if I cast on 64 stitches, I slip 21 stitches onto a new needle from one end of the needle I casted onto. I then slip 21 stitches onto another new needle from the other end of the needle that I casted onto. Just a friendly reminder of what your needles and stitches should look like (NO TWISTED STITCHES!):
Helpful tip: To join the round you simply place your marker and knit the first stitch on the needle to the right, as you know from the tutorials I linked you to. When you see “join round” in the pattern instructions that is really all you need to do. If you don’t like that method (sometimes it creates an unsightly bump on the edge of the fabric) you can try my pet method: slip one end stich over the other end stitch so that they have swapped needles and are crossed. You’ll end up with something like this:
Step 3: Knit round and round to make the cuff and leg tube.
Now you’re ready to start knitting the sock. Follow your pattern’s directions. My sock doesn’t have a defined cuff. According to my pattern I just k3p1 round and round until my leg measures x inches. After a few rounds you’ll have the beginning of your cuff/leg:
Don’t forget: measure often! Measure your cuff (if your pattern includes one) and then measure your leg as you progress. When you have a leg that measures whatever length you are shooting for (leg length usually includes the cuff) move on to the next step.
Step 4: Start the heel flap.
The pattern will tell you at this point to knit (or make ribbing) in x number of stitches from the start of the round, turn, slip 1, and work back as you would in flat knitting. It will then tell you that if you so desire you can put the other stitches on a holder. I would suggest that you not treat this as optional. Just put them on a stitch holder. This way you will not lose track of those stitches later. If you leave them on the needles they will eventually fall off and you’ll have to fix the mess. Save yourself the hassle and use the stitch holder already!
Also: remember that if any pattern tells you to slip 1 you should slip by inserting your needle into the stitch as if to purl (slip purl wise).
Your flap will look like this when you finish it:
My leg with heel flap (right side of heel flap)
My leg with heel flap (wrong side of heel flap). Note how my other stitches are on the holder. 🙂
Step 5: Turn the heel.
Now the directions will tell you to work to a certain point, decrease, turn, slip 1, and work back a number of stitches, decrease, turn, etc. until you have x number of stitches (that’s what the pattern I’m following says to do as well as millions of others). Do that well and you will end up with this:
Right side of my completed heel turn (nice cushy shaping for the bottom of the heel)
Wrong side of my heel turn
Step 6: Pick up and knit the gusset stitches.
It’s time to take those stitches off the holder and put them on one double pointed needle. The instructions will probably tell you to knit some heel stitches, pick up and knit (note: “pick up” is also “pick up and knit”) along the edge of the heel, reincorporate by working the stitches that were on the holder, pick up and knit along the other edge of the heel, knit a few off the heel, and then place a marker somewhere so you know where the end of the round is. Do that and you will have this:
A knitter’s view of the picked up gusset stitches
Side view of the gusset (Whoa! It’s starting to look like a sock!)
It is very important at this stage to keep your instep stitches all on one needle because knitting patterns tend to tell you to decrease in reference to those stitches (for example: “knit to three stitches from instep, k2tog, …”). Since you can’t really knit a stitch or two onto a needle before knitting with a new needle anymore just be sure to pull the last and first stitches of each needle tightly to avoid creating holes. I typically treat the stitches for the sole of the foot (or “foot”) as “mobile” and do the “pull tightly” thing only for the instep. Working this way I wind up having to pass some sole stitches from one needle to another from time to time because one needle always accumulates more stitches than the other. No biggy! I’d rather do that than have a streak up my stockinette.
Step 7: Decrease the gusset and work the sole of the foot and the instep.
I know, I know, you just picked up the stitches and now they’re telling you to decrease. This is what makes the sock have the right shape. Just follow the directions. When you’re done with the decrease phase you’ll knit round and round until your foot tube is the desired length. The pattern I’m using actually tells me to knit the sole of the foot in stockinette and to continue the pattern from the leg on the instep. This is quite common. Just follow the pattern instructions and you’ll do fine! Also, remember to measure the foot from the heel to the end of your knitting from time to time. When you get to the length you need before working the toe it’s time to stop and move on to step 8.
When you’re done with the foot it will look like this:
Aha! Yes, I gave you a preview. I’m actually working on my second sock for the pair! This is what you will do when you make your second sock: measure a lot and compare the sock you’re making with the sock you finished so that they are similar. Don’t worry about that dark blue color blob. It’s not a blob, it’s actually a bunched up piece of fabric. The photography makes it look like a weird blob!
Step 8: Toe shaping.
Now you can follow the pattern for toe shaping. You must get the idea by now. Decrease round, knit even, blah blah blah… The pattern I’m following says to decrease until I have 8 stitches, break my yarn, and pull my yarn through the 8 loops. Yours may tell you to end with more stitches and graft with kitchener stitch.
Step 9: Finish it up!
Weave in your ends, admire your cool sock, and start making the second one to complete the pair. To make sure they are as similar as possible to each other make sure you measure your work often and also compare your work with the first sock you made. I finished my pair of socks. They are very warm and comfortable!
Getting creative with a sock pattern
As you may have noticed I added some color to my basic socks. You can too! It’s not too hard once you master a basic sock pattern. Here are some ideas:
- Use one color for the leg, instep, and sole. Use another color for the cuff, heel, and toe
- Change colors for the toe only (like the ones I just finished)
- Stripe the cuff in two colors, use one of the colors for the leg, instep, and sole, and use the other color for the heel and toe
- Stripe the cuff, heel, and toe only.
- For the cuff, leg, instep, and sole use a variegated yarn. Knit the heel and toe with a solid color.
- Use self-striping yarn for certain parts of the sock and a solid color for the other parts.
- If your basic sock pattern is all stockinette (except the cuff) try using it like a canvas to add a color pattern you like (note well: you’ll need to chart it out first to make sure the pattern fits your color schematic)
- Come up with your own color combo!